'A tightly choreographed dance': what Earth might learn from three new Mars missions

UAE’s Hope probe one of three interplanetary voyagers ushering in a new era of understanding

A pivotal month for the study of Mars will culminate with the arrival of Nasa’s Perseverance rover on Thursday, beginning a period of discovery that aims to pave the way for future human exploration of the Red Planet.

Perseverance was the third mission to reach Mars in a matter of weeks, after the UAE’s history-making Hope and China’s Tianwen-1 orbiters, and together the interplanetary voyagers will provide scientists with the clearest picture yet of our mysterious celestial neighbour.

But what are each mission's aims? And what does it mean for the future of space exploration?

At three metres long and weighing 1,250 kilograms, the Perseverance rover is the largest robotic explorer yet sent to Mars. Its size means it can carry a scientific payload more than 50 per cent larger than previous rovers, including a record 25 cameras and microphones, a drill and even a drone helicopter.

Perseverance is also the first rover designed specifically to seek evidence of ancient microbial life. After a dangerous landing on Mars’ Jezero Crater, an ancient lake likely to contain any such evidence, the rover will continue to explore the planet’s surface for at least two Earth years.

With Nasa targeting a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s, Perseverance will also test technologies that could one day be used to help human beings explore or even colonise the planet.

The rover will use its sensors to monitor environmental conditions so that scientists can better understand how to protect future human explorers, as well as test technologies for creating oxygen on Mars.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment, or Moxie, is intended to show how carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere can be converted into oxygen that could be used for breathing or fuel by future explorers.

If all goes to plan, Nasa’s robotic explorer will be sharing the planet with its Curiosity rover that landed in 2012 and the InSight lander, which arrived in 2018.

To date, only Nasa has landed craft on and explored Mars.

That will change with China's Tianwen-1 rover, which is due to touch down in the southern part of Mars’s Utopia Planitia in May, close to where Nasa’s Viking 2 mission landed in 1976.

One of the rover’s priorities is to use a radar that will try to detect pockets of water beneath the surface, which may contain life.

Orbiting high above the Martian surface, the UAE’s Hope probe and its suite of sensors will carry out its mission over two Earth years to analyse changes in the atmosphere across the entire planet.

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The Arab world’s first interplanetary mission will also study the presence of oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere, and could help scientists to better understand why those elements are lost to space.

Alongside the Hope probe, other orbiters from the US, Europe and India are aloft over Mars, helping to transmit data over tens of millions of kilometres back to Earth.

To facilitate this busy period of exploration, Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is preparing what it called a “tightly choreographed dance” by its Martian satellites to maintain vital data links back to Earth throughout the Perseverance landing.

“It is a huge endeavour to maintain communications with our spacecraft throughout the solar system, but Mars surface missions take this commitment to another level," said Bradford Arnold, project manager of Nasa’s venerable Deep Space Network.

The choreography will allow viewers on Earth to watch the Perseverance’s entry and landing. Although it is by now a well-practised procedure, it is highly complicated.

“While the choreography of this relay scheme is now somewhat commonplace, it is still extremely challenging to co-ordinate all the communication links for the very brief time during a lander’s arrival,” Mr Arnold said.

All three of the latest missions to arrive at Mars started the journey during a launch window in 2020, when the positions of Earth and Mars meant a shorter journey was possible.

The next launch window will arrive in 2022, when European and Russian missions to the Red Planet are scheduled to take off carrying new experiments.

SpaceX is also working on Mars exploration, and chief executive Elon Musk said late last year that a first uncrewed mission to the Red Planet using the Starship spacecraft it is developing could happen as early as 2024.

Updated: February 19, 2021 03:59 PM

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